Last was a watershed year for many obvious reasons. But tucked away in the dark clouds of 2008 was a silver lesson for 2009: The redefinition of risk.
Take all the most respected analysts and ratings service providers, newsletter commentators and financial columnists, and in determining their trustworthiness, pose one simple question: How do you determine risk?
Most of these illustrious and now mostly un-employed souls will launch into a complicated technical analysis of the components and elements of an investment that comprise the varying degrees and types of risk associated with a given investment. You can put all those people in the “don’t bother” pile.
Here’s what 2008 taught us about risk:
No matter who or what or where the origin of the investment, no matter its rating by any agency, and certainly regardless of who else owns it, every dollar that goes out your front door as an investment has, at best, a 50/50 shot at remaining intact, never mind appreciating. And that, more or less, is the new definition of risk. The term “risk” is now virtually interchangeable with “luck”.
With good luck, you’ll make money. With little luck you’ll get your money back. With bad luck, Bernard Madoff and his ilk will swipe your investment outright. With utterly horrible luck, your investment will decline in value so far as to cause you to liquidate other investments to offset an outstanding margin on your bad investment.
In 2009, investors had best adopt a D.I.Y. approach when it comes to the number one mitigator of risk, which is the information accumulated through the process of due diligence. Regardless of your investment experience, there are a few simple rules when it comes to due diligence that will help you morph luck into well managed risk, and the performance of your investments will reflect the time and effort.
Rule #1: Trust Nobody
Unfortunately, 2008 has demonstrated in no uncertain terms that anybody can turn out to be a wolf in sheeps’s clothing. When Bernard Madoff made off with $50 billion from elite investors, it caused a virtual tectonic shift in the idea of unassailable integrity among the Wall Street chieftains. Washington Mutual’s supervisor of loan processing John D. Parsons turned out to a crack-head, Hank Paulson is incompetent, and Standard and Poors would rate an investment vehicle even if it was “structured by cows”.
Anybody who tells you an investment is AAA, or “Guaranteed” should be punted from your list of advisors pronto. In 2009, and until sweeping regulatory changes, all investments carry a 50/50 risk profile.
Rule #2: If You Don’t Understand It, Don’t Invest In It
Contrary to popular perception, Warren Buffet was not the first investor to live by this credo. Many famous bankers and investors from past eras lived by that maxim that had one consistent effect on them: it made them successful.
Asset Backed Commercial Paper is the poster child for this rule. In what turned out to essentially be a liability sliced up and repackaged and sold as an asset, ABCP was one of the first tsunamis that emanated forth from the crash in real estate prices. And it soon became apparent that the investment advisors who sold them did so on orders from their internal sales departments, who authorized them as a result of their AAA ratings status for conservative borrowers, which was arrived at because some over-educated mathematical human pinball machine said that’s how they should be rated.
Rule #3: If You Can’t Get the Information You Need to Form Your Own Opinion About Whether or Not an Investment is Appropriate for You, See Rule # 2
Enron leaders Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay, and Andrew Fastow, along with Bernie Madoff, are the prime examples for this rule. They all counted on their perceived “elite” status to brush off requests for access to in-depth information by skeptical analysts. That kind of behavior should have been a red flag then, and it certainly is more so now. Anything except enthusiastic and sincere transparency should serve as a warning to stay away.
It also doesn’t hurt to check the numbers in the financial statements yourself. You’d be surprised how often, as in the case of Enron, the presence of accounting irregularities was plainly visible in the financial documents, had anyone taken the time to tally up the numbers.
Rule #4: Invest Without Emotion
Its easy to fall in love with a story just because its got all the dramatic elements of a regular Davy and Goliath tale. But that kind of love will send you to the poor house quicker than you can say Doctor Ruth.
Develop a strategy for investing that incorporates your personal risk tolerance profile, and then stick to it. That doesn’t mean cling to the mast of a sinking ship just because your investment timeline says so. Caveat all your strategy with a contingency plan for unforeseen circumstances. But don’t let emotion become the dictating factor.
The two big emotions are fear and greed, and really, they are both just manifestations of fear with different triggers. The fear of losing your money will trigger panic selling, while the fear of missing out will induce mindless buying. There are sophisticated players in the markets who count on the emotional response of the herd, and play into them for their own gain. Don’t be someone else’s exit strategy.
Rule #5: Stay Informed
Many investors don’t understand that it is fully within their right to contact company CEO’s and fund managers and bankers and ask questions. When it comes to public companies, a CEO who doesn’t return phone calls to all investors doesn’t sufficiently understand his company’s dependency on them, and probably isn’t worthy of your own investment.
Even in the biggest companies, your attempt to talk to the CEO should at least be met with a response from a courteous subordinate. In this day and age of instant communication by individuals to a mass audience, nobody should be ignored.
Read every press release, scour the financials for errors, keep track of the comments from individuals associated with the company or fund in search of discrepancies, and stick to the strategy.
But don’t just stay informed about your particular investment. Stay informed about trends with industries and asset classes. Regardless of your academic inclination, continuous exposure to information develops an instinctive comprehension for basic terminology and industry fundamentals.
You could find yourself having a profitable 2009.